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Explainer: Why mentoring?

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This post appears in a series of WW Explainers—brief articles that will dig a little deeper into some of the terms, methods, and background of the Foundation’s work. For more from the series, click here.

Earlier this year, The Chronicle of Higher Education looked at the first five years of the Thiel Fellowship—a $100,000 award created by Silicon Valley’s Peter Thiel to give young entrepreneurs a pass on college and allow them to start their own businesses. Tucked into the Chronicle article with little fanfare was this observation:

The most valuable part of the fellowship for many wasn’t the freedom or the money but the network they were plugged into. Although less structured in its early days, the fellowship now offers retreats, internships, summer housing, and teams of advisers….

The takeaway: Even the top candidates in any field—and Woodrow Wilson has always selected the best as its Fellows—need support, not just funding, as they build careers. After all, guidance from others who’ve already been there is the essence of education. Mentoring, when it’s integrated well into professional and intellectual development, smooths the way for gifted people to do their best work.

Mentoring plays an important role in all of the Foundation’s fellowships. It’s a formal part of the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships, the WW Teaching Fellowships, the WW MBA Fellowship in Education Leadership, and the Career Enhancement Fellowship, but it has also been significant in less formal ways for generations of Fellows in the Newcombe, Women’s Studies, Mellon-Mays, and other dissertation support fellowships that the Foundation administers.

In the academy, mentoring has traditionally meant guidance in scholarly practice: how to conduct research, how to present findings, how to position your work in the discipline’s larger conversation. This kind of mentoring goes back to the medieval university. These days, the savviest academic mentors also help their students learn the everyday realities of the profession: how to make the most of attending conferences; how to tap into the right online networks; how to balance research with teaching, administrative assignments, and personal life; and a range of other skills more practical than scholarly.

In fact, advising the next generation about the culture of an institution, and not just about the substance of a discipline, may be the real essence of mentoring. The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowships, for instance, take teacher candidates into classrooms not just so that they can experience a full school year of working with students—though that’s the heart of it—but also so that they can begin to understand what the daily life of a teacher looks like, how teachers engage (or don’t engage) with school administrators, and how they recharge themselves after a challenging day in the classroom.

Similarly, in the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships, administered by Woodrow Wilson for the U.S. Department of State, mentoring becomes the component that helps Fellows make the shift from strong academic preparation and short-term internships to serving as better Foreign Service Officers over the long term. By learning from peers and senior personnel, the Pickering Fellows come to understand what it means to develop networks of contacts, balance the requirements of a diplomatic life, and develop important nuances of judgment.

Many programs that prepare young people from underrepresented groups for success in college use similar kinds of mentoring. Even with an excellent academic background, a child who is the first in the family to go to college may not know how best to structure work hours, coursework, and social life, how to create relationships with faculty who can continue to mentor and support them, or how to know when to ask for help. A number of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Fellows have gone on to mentor middle and high school students so that they too have this kind of preparation.

As the Woodrow Wilson Foundation works to support future leaders, funding is not enough; truly preparing talented people to lead also requires engaging them directly with the institutions where they will spend their professional and intellectual lives. This is why mentoring, in one form or another, is a fundamental part of every Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.

The upcoming spring 2015 edition of Fellowship, the Foundation’s newsletter, will take a closer look at mentoring across WW’s programs.


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